< William Wordsworth >

Venice by Guardi

View of Venice by Francesco Guardi
(1710 - 1793)

On the Extinction of the Venetian Republic
composed 1802 (32)
first published 1807, Poems in Two Volumes

ONCE did She hold the gorgeous east in fee;
      And was the safeguard of the west: the worth
Of Venice did not fall below her birth,
Venice, the eldest Child of Liberty.
She was a maiden City, bright and free;
No guile seduced, no force could violate;
And, when she took unto herself a Mate,
She must espouse the everlasting Sea.
And what if she had seen those glories fade;
Those titles vanish, and that strength decay;
Yet shall some tribute of regret be paid
When her long life hath reached its final day:
Men are we, and must grieve when e'en the Shade
Of that which once was great, is passed away.


The Venetian Republic was extinguished by Napoleon's armies in 1797, and he passed control to the Austrians later the same year.

As the French Revolution progressed from 1789 through its various stages of liberty, terror and dictatorial control, Wordsworth, who had seen events unfold at first hand during his twelve months' stay in France in 1791/2, came initially to wholeheartedly espouse the ideals of republican liberty, influenced in this largely by Michel Beaupuy, a young French minor aristocrat who nevertheless espoused the revolutionary cause. But he became progressively more and more disillusioned with the process he saw unravelling after his departure from France in December 1792, with the Reign of Terror, the declaration of war between England and France, and the rise of Napoleon. Politically, it was a safer bet to lament the passing of the Venetian republic, in which context the passing of republican values could be lamented without the implication that he was thereby expressing seditious views.

It was something of an irony that it was Napoleon, the man who had inherited the powers wrested from the monarchy in France by the republican revolution, who was also responsible for the final demise of the Venetian Republic.

The lament for the passing of the Venetian Republic is clearly a bittersweet phenomenon: the city was old, decayed from its former splendour, and the events are distant. We mourn in the same way as we might mourn a beautiful sunset at the end of a perfect day, with a similar poignant melancholy. The events recounted do not really touch us. But, behind these semi-pleasant emotions and this reflective melancholy, there lies the much more near to home, raw and unpalatable reality of the violent and bloody suppression of the freedoms of the French Republic, finally crushed by the same Napoleon in 1799. There are also, for Wordsworth himself, the unpleasant associations with his affair with Annette Vallon, his abandoned child, and the impediment that this presents to his marriage to Mary Hutchinson and his own domestic happiness.

As a sonnet, the poem is just about perfect. Like the stones of Machu Picchu, one gets the feeling that it would be impossible to put a cigarette paper between the words. There is considerable variety in the disposition of syllables over the line, but the poem as a whole is extremely well ordered, with a precise rhyme scheme and exact syllable count. The tone is remarkably steady, giving the impression that the whole encompasses one single thought, expressed with a sigh. Perhaps this gives some relief for the tensions created by the more powerful conflicts and disappointments which stand behind the poem (as the fall of French republican liberty stands behind the fall of the Venetian Republic). It would not be out of place in the context of Wordsworth's poetic theory to speculate so. The disturbances of strong emotions are seen through the reverse telescope of the poetic understanding, rendering it possible to contemplate them with equanimity. Interestingly, this idea again links directly with Buddhist meditation techniques: the path to freedom lies in conquering our aversion to pain, and the method of achieving this is in not reacting to the pain, but in simply observing it.

We find in the Preface to the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads:

I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity; the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind. In this mood successful composition generally begins, and in a mood similar to this it is carried on; but the emotion, of whatever kind, and in whatever degree, from various causes, is qualified by various pleasures, so that in describing any passions whatsoever, which are voluntarily described, the mind will, upon the whole, be in a state of enjoyment. Now if Nature be thus cautious in preserving in a state of enjoyment a being thus employed, the Poet ought to profit by the lesson thus held forth to him, and ought especially to take care, that whatever passions he communicates to his Reader, those passions, if his Reader's mind be sound and vigorous, should always be accompanied with an overbalance of pleasure. Now the music of harmonious metrical language, the sense of difficulty overcome, and the blind association of pleasure which has been previously received from works of rhyme or metre of the same or similar construction, all these imperceptibly make up a complex feeling of delight, which is of the most important use in tempering the painful feeling which will always be found intermingled with powerful descriptions of the deeper passions

This is perhaps not exactly what we find in this poem: here the necessary distance to contemplate with equanimity is achieved by substituting one less painful but similar experience for another. In this case it enables the poet to contemplate the disappointments, emotional turmoil and frustrated hopes of the original experience by substituting a later, similar but less disturbing experience, rather than simply just revisiting the same events at a later date. Similar techniques can probably be found in modern psychotherapeutic practice.

At all events, it is evident that the whole period of his stay in France, his subsequent disillusionment with the revolutionary ideals of that time, and his difficult affair with Annette Vallon are evoked and sublimated somewhere in this poem, where the central experience, the fall of the republic and the extinction of liberty is the same. The past can no longer trouble him: what had happened was regrettable, but distant, and, as it faded, he could see it as a beautiful sunset. Whether Annette Vallon was able to see it in the same way is doubtful. She, after all, still had Wordsworth's child to look after, a fact which probably made melancholy detachment much more difficult.

Dating of the composition of the poem is uncertain. It is generally thought to have been composed between May 1802 and January 1803, and it is tempting to think that it would have been some time after the Wordsworths' visit to France to see Annette Vallon and her daughter Caroline in August 1802. This encounter was intended to enable Wordsworth to put his past of republican fervour and amatory dalliance behind him, and go on to marry Mary Hutchinson later the same year.